Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Dr. John M. McLarnon III, author of Ruling Suburbia, spoke in Kohlberg Hall’s Scheuer Room on October 30 about the political machine of Delaware County and its legacy of corruption. Sharing stories from his book, McLarnon, a history professor at Millersville University, discussed the Republican powerhouse that has dominated Delaware County politics since the late 1800s, focusing mostly on the work of politician John McClure.
McLarnon claimed that McClure ran the county until the day he died and, when asked, said that nobody has come even close to running a machine like McClure did. He attributed the success of the political machine to McClure’s organization, strategic planning, parochialism, pandering to each district’s needs, electioneering, short-term limits, and maintaining strict control of all money.
“John McClure was not tied to any ideology; he was not a Republican, not a Democrat, not a Christian, not an atheist — he was a politician,” McLarnon said in reference to McClure’s ability to scheme and deceive whomever he needed to acquire or maintain power over Delaware County.
He compared Delaware County’s general lack of adherence to prohibition laws in the 1920s to how people ran the politics of the county at the time. McLarnon covered various scandals during the Prohibition period, including the 72 liquor licenses issued in the county in 1922, illegal alcohol trafficking in Chester, the numerous stills built along the Crum Creek and in the basement of Media’s courthouse, and inmates’ brewing their own whiskey in prison. Aside from Swarthmore, which strictly abided by the country’s Prohibition Act, Delaware County adopted a “local option” policy, which allowed each community to decide if alcohol would be permitted in the area.
McClure had planned to run for governor and then president before being arrested for bootlegging, McLarnon said. He added that McClure escaped conviction by spreading a false rumor that an epidemic of scarlet fever had broken out in the county and was affecting the families of the jury members. The vote quickly switched from mixed to a unanimous “not guilty,” due to the jury’s desire to hurry home and tend to their sick families.
Although McLarnon conceded that local corruption is much less widespread than it was in McClure’s day, some problems persist, such as vote buying in Chester. The problems of the county in the past, though, were much more severe and common.
When asked for advice from local Democrats in politics who want to address the county’s problems, he said, “What you need to see happen is what happened in Philadelphia: Get loyal Republican operatives to hang themselves. Rarely has a desire for a democratic two-party system been a high priority for Delaware County.”